Technological constants

Culture | The laws of economics, humanity, and Star Trek

Issue: "Year in Review 1998," Dec. 26, 1998

To boldly go-again
Open hailing frequencies. Star Trek: Insurrection (Paramount, rated PG for sci-fi action violence, mild language) takes the New Generation crew of the Enterprise into a bout of tribal conflict. A technology-rejecting tribe called the Ba'ku is in danger of being kicked off their home planet, so the Federation and a gang of space baddies (led by F. Murray Abraham) can take over. The whole place is one big Fountain of Youth. The natives live hundreds of years without aging and the interlopers want the secret for themselves. Guess who must save the day. Captain Picard gets to say lots of righteous things about the evils of forced relocation. He even gets a 300-year-old native redhead to pitch woo with, though she still looks younger than he does. The Ba'ku, for a bunch of Luddites, don't seem to do much work, and they live in a super-lush paradise without machines or guns or warp drives. Their bodies are constantly regenerated by the strange phenomenon they won't share with the rest of the universe. All this makes it harder to feel sorry for them. Also, since their new home is going to be exactly like their old one (except that they will have to die like the rest of us), one could argue that the Ba'ku culture, as such, is never really threatened. This tribe of 600 wants to keep the secret of health from billions just so they don't have to face the normal aging process. Why should Picard risk his crew for that cause? Star Trek loves trying to cram social relevance into its plots, and this is no different. In Insurrection, Federation bigshots are in league with the villains to displace the Ba'ku in the name of progress, thus ignoring their Prime Directive not to interfere with local cultures (as if the Enterprise crews haven't done their own meddling over the last 30 years). This doesn't play as hokey as many a TV episode, where every move is supposed to be some political parable. But the plastic preachiness, plus the effects of the normal aging process, make Insurrection (the ninth Star Trek movie, on top of four TV series) not as much fun as the last entry, First Contact. Information economics
As communications get faster, the race to deliver everything from stock quotes to systematic theology speeds up. The business bestseller Information Rules (Harvard Business School Press) explains how the game is played. For example, the Encyclopedia Britannica ruled the brain game before the days of the CD-ROM. Their famous salesmen sold 32 volumes of ink and paper for $1,600. Now the same text is sold on disc for under $90 (worth every penny-see WORLD, April 11, 1998) just to keep up with competition from Microsoft Encarta. Electronic phone books sold for $10,000 in 1986 but can be searched for free today. Economists Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian avoid the buzzwords and explain how economics and technology come together in everything from color TV to ATM machines to the Microsoft antitrust case (which Mr. Shapiro helped investigate). The 19th-century Internet
The information revolution didn't begin with the Internet or even the invention of the microchip; it started with the telegraph. So says British journalist Tom Standage in his book The Victorian Internet (Walker). "The equipment may have been different," he said, "but the telegraph's impact on the lives of its users was striking." Where news once took weeks to get from place to place, the papers could now carry the latest news from around the world. Businessmen could make deals quickly, and faraway loved ones could keep in touch. Like the Net itself, the telegraph was met with distrust and debates about privacy, government regulation, and crime on the lines. People even made familiar grandiose claims that the telegraph would end wars and save humanity. Mr. Standage says that while technology always changes, human nature-like the laws of economics-stays the same.

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